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Kansas Big 12 winning streak faces tough challenge

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Oklahoma guard Trae Young stands with head coach Lon Kruger during the second half in an NCAA college basketball game against Arkansas during the Phil Knight Invitational Tournament, in Portland, Ore., Thursday, Nov. 23, 2017. (AP Photo/Troy Wayrynen)

Oklahoma guard Trae Young stands with head coach Lon Kruger during the second half in an NCAA college basketball game against Arkansas during the Phil Knight Invitational Tournament, in Portland, Ore., Thursday, Nov. 23, 2017. (AP Photo/Troy Wayrynen)

A number of issues threatened to unseat Kansas from its perennial role as favorite to win the Big 12 basketball crown.

Woefully thin front-court depth. A hovering cloud of uncertainty regarding the status of two potentially key reserves. No backup point guard.

Yet, Kansas emerged from a softer-than-usual non-conference schedule (still the strongest in the Big 12) with a 10-2 record and as a popular pick to win a 14th consecutive title.

Still, the streak won’t last forever and this could be the year it ends. Even if it does, it also could be the year Kansas returns to the Final Four for the first time since 2012.

Here’s one vote for that scenario taking place.

My predicted order of Big 12 finish, with statistics culled from kenpom.com:

1 - No. 12 Oklahoma (10-1, 106 SoS).

Kenpom.com ranking: 16.

Leading scorer: Trae Young (28.7).

Positive stat (national kenpom.com rank): 59.0 (7) effective field-goal pct.

Negative stat (national kenpom.com rank): 28.0 (200) offensive rebound pct.

Bill Self’s Kansas Jayhawks won the conference outright when Texas (Kevin Durant), Oklahoma (Blake Griffin) and Kansas State (Michael Beasley) had the best player in the nation, so it’s easy to see why most pick KU to do it again, even though the Sooners have the nation’s best player in Young, the freshman point guard drawing comparisons to Steph Curry.

It’s just as easy to see how Young, complemented by a nice array of shot-blockers and shooters, could lead the Sooners to the Big 12 title. They looked terrific winning at Wichita State, 91-83, Dec. 16.

Young doesn’t play like a freshman, so the pressure of a Big 12 race isn’t likely to get to him.

2 - No. 7 West Virginia (11-1, 329 SoS).

Kenpom.com ranking: 12.

Leading scorer: Jevon Carter (18.2).

Positive stat: 28.3 (2) opponents’ turnover pct.

Negative stat: 33.2 3-point pct. (232).

The names change, but the teams remain the same. They apply insane defensive pressure, sometimes all game, sometimes in spot situations, crash the offensive boards relentlessly and leave opponents feeling as if they’ve been in a boxing gym sparring all night. Carter is the Perry Ellis of West Virginia in that it feels as if he’s been playing for the Mountaineers for 10 years.

3 - No. 11 Kansas (10-2, 60 strength of schedule).

Kenpom.com ranking: 6.

Leading scorer: Lagerald Vick (17.1)

Positive stat: 60.5 (3) effective field-goal pct.

Negative stat: 18.2 (351) FTA/FGA ratio.

Cleared to practice, Silvio De Sousa hasn’t been cleared to play in games yet. The bright side: The longer he practices before making his debut, the more ready he’ll be for that debut. The downside: Especially with Billy Preston still not playing, the sooner Udoka Azubuike has help up front, the better.

Kansas has played remarkably well on most nights, but the grind of conference play requires more depth than they had in non-conference play.

This could be a more dangerous NCAA tournament team than in conference.

4 - No. 10 TCU (12-0, 135 SoS).

Kenpom.com ranking: 24.

Leading scorer: Kenrich Williams (14.5).

Positive stat: 59.8 (4) effective field-goal pct.

Negative stat: 52.5 (245) 2-point pct. defense.

NIT champions with a resounding 88-56 annihilation of Georgia Tech, Jamie Dixon’s Horned Frogs have won 17 in a row.

The world is about to see how that streak stands up to tougher competition. In its first five Big 12 games, TCU faces Oklahoma twice and Kansas once.

The Frogs don’t have any superstars but do have five players in double figures, including 6-foot-11, 230-pound senior Vladimir Brodziansky from Slovakia who is averaging 13.5 points, shooting .435 from 3-point range and averaging 1.8 blocks per game.

5 - Texas (9-3, 99 SoS).

Kenpom.com ranking: 32.

Leading scorer: Andrew Jones (15.3).

Positive stat: 87.2 (2) adjusted defensive efficiency.

Negative stat: 0.94 (339) years average experience.

Freshman center Mohamed Bamba is blessed with a 7-foot-9 wingspan, runs the floor like a guard, and has enabled Texas to pressure the ball defensively, knowing Bamba can bail them out with blocked shots.

Bamba totaled 17 points, 11 rebounds and five blocked shots against Alabama.

6 - No. 22 Texas Tech (11-1, 334 SoS).

Kenpom.com ranking: 11.

Leading scorer: Keenan Evans (16.5).

Positive stat: 89.9 adjusted defensive efficiency (6).

Negative stat: 66.5 (281) free-throw pct.

The Red Raiders slammed Boston College, 75-64, and Northwestern, 85-49, and have received strong early play from freshmen Zaire Smith and Jarrett Culver, both averaging in double figures.

Zach Smith (7.5 ppg) is off to a slow start and will need to return to form for Tech to finish in the top half of the conference.

7 - No. 18 Baylor (10-2, 291 SoS).

Kenpom.com ranking: 28.

Leading scorer: Manu Lecomte (18.4).

Positive stat: 20.0 (2) opponents FTA/FGA ratio.

Negative stat: 15.7 (328) opponents’ turnover pct.

Lecomte is a terrific point guard and 7-footer Jo Lual-Acuil is averaging a double-double, but the Bears don’t have enough offensive firepower joining them in the lineup to contend for a conference title.

8 - Oklahoma State (10-2, 300 SoS).

Kenpom.com ranking: 49.

Leading scorer: Jeffrey Carroll (15.0)

Positive stat: 80.5 (3) free-throw pct.

Negative stat: 33.0 (243) 3-point pct.

Cowboys have played well under first-year coach Mike Boynton, whose only two losses have come to ranked opponents Texas A&M and Wichita State.

Upset victory against ranked Florida State was a big one for the Big 12.

9 - Kansas State (10-2, 286 SoS).

Kenpom.com ranking: 43.

Leading scorer: Barry Brown (14.4).

Positive stat: 4.4 pct. (2) of shots blocked by opposing defenses.

Negative stat: 34.9 (174) 3-point pct.

The Wildcats nearly pulled off what would have been a terrific victory on Thanksgiving Day but couldn’t hold onto a nine-point lead early in the second half and lost to Arizona State by two.

Is this the year Dean Wade consistently asserts himself? If so, K-State will finish better than ninth. If not, maybe not.

10 - Iowa State (9-2, 297 SoS).

Kenpom.com ranking: 74.

Leading scorer: Donovan Jackson (16.2).

Positive stat: 16.7 (48) turnover pct.

Negative stat: 17.9 (237) opponents’ turnover pct.

After opening season with losses at Missouri and at home vs. Milwaukee, Cyclones have rebounded to carry nine-game winning streak into the conference play, including victories against Boise State, Iowa and Northern Iowa. It’s not that Iowa State is bad, but somebody has to finish last.

Comments

Bryson Stricker 3 weeks, 3 days ago

I thought this was going to be really good until you put KU finishing third. Come on Tom, your resentment for Zenger and the football program has now officially clouded your judgement of the basketball team.

Len Shaffer 3 weeks, 3 days ago

There is ample reason to think that this could be the year the streak ends. Oklahoma is really good and West Virginia is pretty good too. And KU has shown plenty of chinks in its armor.

Also, as much as I don't like some things that Keegan says, your assertion is ludicrous on its face. There's no reason to believe that his analysis of KU football has any connection to his analysis of basketball. (I assume you said it facetiously, but it's still a nonsensical statement.)

Pius Waldman 3 weeks, 3 days ago

There is little doubt that competition will be great and no team is a big favorite to win it all. At least 5 teams have a shot to win the conference. So picking another team rather than Kansas wouldn't be totally wrong. Unless Preston gets approved and De Sousa provides help KU will be facing a big challenge.

Andy Godwin 3 weeks, 3 days ago

Normally I don't agree with Tom, but I had predicted before the season (and before the Billy Preston issues and resurrection of Steph Curry in an Oklahoma jersey) that even if KU stays healthy this team would likely be the one to break the streak. The front line is inexperienced and way too thin to compete with the depth in the Big 12. The five guard line up will not cut it when both bigs are in trouble (De Sousa will take time and based on Self's rhetoric I don't see Preston contributing). Josh Jackson and Frank Mason covered the warts from last years team. Newman has not been the explosive player expected and Vick, although excellent, is not a 4 man like Jackson. Hopefully, Self can pull a rabbit out of this basketball hat and get a team ready to compete for a national championship while another team celebrates the Big 12 conference title.

Clarence Haynes 3 weeks, 3 days ago

The Preston situation perplexes me. I am sure that incoming athletes are grilled on the rules. Nonetheless, we see this young man in this predicament that is hindering his development. I don’t understand it.

Travis Clementsmith 3 weeks, 2 days ago

Really? You think 17 year old kids are grilled on the rules and comprehend them? I've followed this game for quite some time and not sure I completely understand. I certainly have scant information regarding it to make any sort of judgement. Maybe he should have known better, maybe it came from a source he trusted. As die-hard fans, we have the benefit of seeing examples like this every year we follow. But, for a high school kid, it is all probably brand new to them. Things often don't appear as "obvious" to them as they do to us. The pre-frontal cortex, where "judgement" takes place, isn't fully developed until the mid 20's. We should remember that despite their fame and advanced physical characteristics, they are teenagers, not mature adults.

Kevin Whelan 3 weeks, 3 days ago

Great analysis,Tom! I can see where that took a lot of time and research.

Layne Pierce 3 weeks, 3 days ago

People Lets stop denying reality because we don't like Tom Keegan. He has a right to conjecture, just like we all do. Fact is we all know its not going to be easy. I still think we at least tie for it.

Rock Chalk Jayhawk

Kit Duncan 3 weeks, 3 days ago

The one thing going for Kansas is consistency in winning home games. Bill Self has said it before. Win all of your home games, win the away games you are expected to win and steal one or two away games you are supposed to lose, and you will be in good position to win conference. Until Oklahoma and West Virginia manage to not suffer their usual mental lapses causing them to lose a couple home games, I still say the title goes through Kansas.

Kent Richardson 3 weeks, 3 days ago

We are in a different position needing help from the whole conference slapping each other around until we get deeper and more experienced.

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